President Biden arrived in Europe Wednesday for a series of high-level meetings on the war in Ukraine, with allies preparing to green-light a new round of sanctions on Russia and new deployments of NATO troops to Eastern European countries with a front-row seat to the fighting.
On a day when the State Department officially accused Russia’s invading forces of war crimes in Ukraine, a top aide to Mr. Biden said the Kremlin’s threats that it was ready to consider a nuclear response to Western efforts to aid Kyiv will be among the key topics the president is set to discuss with leaders of NATO, the European Union and the Group of Seven industrial democracies. Mr. Biden will finish off the trip Saturday with a visit to Warsaw and a likely tour of the massive refugee operations Polish officials have set up to handle a crush of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the nuclear issue would be on the agenda after a top spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that Russia might resort to a nuclear weapon if it perceived “an existential threat.” Nuclear experts said the comments were effectively a re-statement of current Russian policy, but they have acquired a new edge as Russia’s month-old invasion struggles to make progress.
Mr. Sullivan said NATO leaders will be discussing how to respond to such threats. He reiterated that the U.S. hasn’t seen any reason to adjust its nuclear posture.
“It’s, of course, something that we will have to continue to stay in close consultation with allies and partners as well as communicate directly to the Russians,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Brussels with Mr. Biden.
Mr. Sullivan said the fresh round of sanctions the U.S. and Europe plan to announce Thursday will target Russian political figures, oligarchs and state entities. Moscow has already been hit by a broad barrage of sanctions targeting its trade and financial sectors over the war.
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The European talks also will focus on reducing Russian leverage over Europe as an energy supplier. Mr. Sullivan said the Biden administration is looking to increase supplies of American liquefied natural gas to Europe in the coming weeks to replace Russian energy supplies now cut off by the war.
Separately, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Mr. Biden and other leaders of the Western military alliance will announce a major new deployment of troops to Eastern Europe, including four new NATO battle groups to be based in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. They will join other units to stretch the alliance from the Baltics to the Black Sea, Mr. Stoltenberg said Wednesday during a press conference.
With the U.S. also warning Russia may be contemplating a chemical or biological attack in Ukraine, Mr. Stoltenberg said NATO leaders likely will offer Ukraine protective equipment such as masks and protective suits.
“We face a new reality for our security,” Mr. Stoltenberg told reporters. “We must reset our deterrence and defense for the longer term.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address NATO leaders during the summit, just as he has made his country’s case for greater support in recent days to the U.S. Congress, the British House of Commons and, on Wednesday, Japan’s national parliament.
In Ukraine, Russian forces continue to shell city centers across the country, but the Zelenskyy government got some good news with reports that Ukrainian forces have retaken a strategic suburb of the capital of Kyiv. U.S. officials said Wednesday there were signs Russian forces were adopting a more defensive posture as they face growing manpower and supply challenges. Four weeks after Mr. Putin ordered Russian forces across the border at multiple points, none of Ukraine‘s major cities has fallen to the invading forces.
SEE ALSO: Russia’s nuclear threats will top agenda for Biden at NATO summit in Brussels
Russian forces again shelled Kyiv Wednesday, with rockets slamming into a shopping mall and high-rise buildings in the districts of Sviatoshynskyi and Shevchenkivskyi, Ukrainian officials said. The southern port city of Mariupol, a particular target of the Russian offensive, continued to defy Russian demands to surrender even as civilians tried to flee and food and medical supplies were nearly wiped out.
On another front, the Biden administration Wednesday officially declared that Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine are guilty of war crimes, escalating the standoff with the Kremlin and potentially making a diplomatic deal to end the month-long war even harder to strike.
The statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken stopped short of singling out Mr. Putin or any of his top aides, as Mr. Biden did in a remark to a reporter last week. But Mr. Blinken sharply criticized Mr. Putin for an “unprovoked and unjust war of choice,” one that the U.S. diplomat said had “unleashed unrelenting violence that has caused death and destruction across Ukraine.”
The State Department statement said Russian forces in Ukraine have targeted civilian sites such as apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, many of which had been clearly labeled as non-military locations. It also cited U.N. figures estimating that at least 2,500 civilians have been killed or wounded in the fighting, and the actual number is “likely higher.”
Mr. Blinken said last week U.S. officials were compiling evidence and working with private rights groups to document possible war crimes by Russian forces in the fighting.
“Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken said, adding the finding was based on a review of both public and intelligence sources.
Eager to contain the scope of the fighting, U.S. officials say they are not seeking “regime change” in the Kremlin even as they join the effort to arm Ukraine and help it defend itself. Mr. Blinken, in his statement, said any determination of individual guilt for war crimes was not for Washington to decide.
“As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases,” he said. “The U.S. government will continue to track reports of war crimes and will share information we gather with allies, partners, and international institutions and organizations, as appropriate.”
The Kremlin had yet to respond to the U.S. declaration as of Wednesday evening. European Union foreign ministers, meeting Monday in Brussels, also declared Russian forces guilty of war crimes but stopped short of assigning individual guilt.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.